Author Topic: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?  (Read 968 times)

TheMightyAtom

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Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« on: September 14, 2018, 02:49:50 PM »
Hi Mustachians! I need some advice from those of you who are/were engineers.

(Sorry if this is a redundant post -- I couldn't find something similar in my searches through this forum).

A little bit of background:

I'm an early-career electrical engineer with no debt and a good savings rate. I'm in my mid-20s now, single, with a decent amount of free time on my hands. I've been trying to decide if getting my master's degree is a worthwhile investment. It's going to take me 3+ years to accomplish, although my company would be footing the bill. I would be close to 30 by the time I finished the degree.

I have no ambitions of climbing the corporate ladder higher than a few rungs, and I'm planning on becoming FI sometime in my late 30s or early 40s. I'm not even sure I'm going to want to work in engineering beyond that point --- as you all know, becoming FI tends to open up a person's daily activities quite a bit. I might end up doing something else.

Given all of this information, does getting my master's degree make sense? I know it's possible to be a successful engineer without a master's --- am I gaining that much in terms of salary/job security in exchange for all of the free time I'm losing? Right now, I'm thinking that the many hours of my life I would lose by doing the degree could be spent building up side businesses or developing other methods of passive income which would be much more valuable in the long run. Am I wrong about that?

Did any of you end up doing your master's degrees only to find out that it wasn't really worth the time and money spent?

Thanks for any input.

FireHiker

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #1 on: September 14, 2018, 04:04:50 PM »
Electrical engineer here. The only EEs I have known with masters degrees are the ones in management; they do not work as individual contributors in a technical way. Actually, with one exception, every EE or ME I have known with a Masters degree is dramatically less skilled than the ones I've known with just a BS...

That said, if your company is footing the bill, you're single, have the free time, and are interested in further education, I guess there's no harm in it. But, I just haven't seen it to be worthwhile in my field to have a masters.

mm1970

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #2 on: September 14, 2018, 05:36:45 PM »
If your company is footing the bill and you can study something interesting and in depth that may help your career, go for it.

I got a master's in engineering management while working during the day.  I learned a lot, but thing that it really did for me was impress future companies that I got a master's at night while working during the day.

I work with a lot of PhDs.  They do, in fact, appreciate a master's degree - particularly if it is in the area that we work in.  Deeper knowledge and all that.  Because: they are PhDs.  Whether this is important depends a LOT on the type of engineering you do and the type of people you work with.

Some of the strongest engineers that I've worked with have bachelor's degrees - they are just smart and great learners, and despite having a BS in chemical engineering are able to do simulations of device physics in transistors in an electrical engineering company - because they learned it on the job.

TLDR: Depends.  If you work with a lot of people with higher degrees?  Can help.  If not?  Meh.

seattlecyclone

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #3 on: September 14, 2018, 05:43:30 PM »
I'm in software engineering rather than electrical engineering. I have a master's degree that I completed full-time directly after my undergrad. I doubt the degree itself has made much of a difference for my career. I enjoyed the experience though. The fact that I earned it from a higher-ranked institution than my undergrad meant that better companies came to the career fair, which was nice, but it's pretty likely I could have made it into one of those companies if I had instead spent that time in industry.

the_grillman

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #4 on: September 14, 2018, 05:49:53 PM »
Mechanical Engineer.  Got a thesis based masters as where I did my undergrad was primarily an industry that I didn't want to work in.  Learned a lot and managed to get into (sort of) the industry that I was interested in through making connections.  The degree itself is now useless as I get 0 recognition, treated and paid the same as my colleagues who all only have their undergrad. 
Was it worth it?  As a personal achievement yes; career development probably not.  If all I was really after was a job and a salary that extra 2 years working would have likely put me further ahead.

TheMightyAtom

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #5 on: September 14, 2018, 08:26:18 PM »
Electrical engineer here. The only EEs I have known with masters degrees are the ones in management; they do not work as individual contributors in a technical way. Actually, with one exception, every EE or ME I have known with a Masters degree is dramatically less skilled than the ones I've known with just a BS...

That said, if your company is footing the bill, you're single, have the free time, and are interested in further education, I guess there's no harm in it. But, I just haven't seen it to be worthwhile in my field to have a masters.

I appreciate your input. Mind if I ask what field you're in?

If your company is footing the bill and you can study something interesting and in depth that may help your career, go for it.

I got a master's in engineering management while working during the day.  I learned a lot, but thing that it really did for me was impress future companies that I got a master's at night while working during the day.

I work with a lot of PhDs.  They do, in fact, appreciate a master's degree - particularly if it is in the area that we work in.  Deeper knowledge and all that.  Because: they are PhDs.  Whether this is important depends a LOT on the type of engineering you do and the type of people you work with.

Some of the strongest engineers that I've worked with have bachelor's degrees - they are just smart and great learners, and despite having a BS in chemical engineering are able to do simulations of device physics in transistors in an electrical engineering company - because they learned it on the job.

TLDR: Depends.  If you work with a lot of people with higher degrees?  Can help.  If not?  Meh.

Good to know. I think I could learn the vast majority of what I might need to know on the job, so maybe the master's isn't worth it.

I'm in software engineering rather than electrical engineering. I have a master's degree that I completed full-time directly after my undergrad. I doubt the degree itself has made much of a difference for my career. I enjoyed the experience though. The fact that I earned it from a higher-ranked institution than my undergrad meant that better companies came to the career fair, which was nice, but it's pretty likely I could have made it into one of those companies if I had instead spent that time in industry.

Thanks for your perspective. I've heard the same thing from some coworkers -- time spent in industry counts as much, if not more.

Mechanical Engineer.  Got a thesis based masters as where I did my undergrad was primarily an industry that I didn't want to work in.  Learned a lot and managed to get into (sort of) the industry that I was interested in through making connections.  The degree itself is now useless as I get 0 recognition, treated and paid the same as my colleagues who all only have their undergrad. 
Was it worth it?  As a personal achievement yes; career development probably not.  If all I was really after was a job and a salary that extra 2 years working would have likely put me further ahead.

Sorry to hear about your experience, but I appreciate your sharing it nonetheless. That's the sort of situation I'm afraid of --- spend 3+ years having almost no life outside of work to complete a degree which ends up not really benefiting me all that much before I achieve FI.

pbkmaine

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #6 on: September 15, 2018, 05:39:00 AM »
Would your company pay for an MBA? Would that interest you?

GuitarStv

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #7 on: September 15, 2018, 06:01:52 AM »
I have several friends with masters in engineering (aerospace, electrical, computer).  None of them made enough after starting work to really be able to say it was worth it.

jo552006

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #8 on: September 15, 2018, 08:09:45 AM »
I'm firmly in the not worth it crowd*... unless you wanted to get an MBA.  Even then, if your ambition isn't to climb high on the corporate ladder, then I'd do something else.  If your target salary is being achieved by others without master's at your (or other) employers, I wouldn't choose to spend my time that way.

The SAME time spend doing anything that teaches you a trade, hobby, or something else would likely benefit you more.  How's your carpentry skills?  Can you do more than minor work to your vehicle?  For me, these skills have come in 100 times more useful than the masters that my former employer wanted to see me get would have.

If you're an engineer who thinks too much and over complicates stuff, learning the skills above from somebody who isn't an engineer could be doubly helpful.  The amount of times I've had my father show me an obvious solution I was missing due to overthinking is staggering.  I still don't think like him, but when we work together we're a powerful force.  I hope many years from now, when he's not around, I can still hear what he would say to me.

If you already have the ability to do most of these things, or are confident your life path won't require them, do the math on what a flexible hour part time job would do for your life.  If you're bored and need to do SOMETHING, then the best value calculation is not Masters or extra sleep, it's 3 years getting a masters vs 3 years of part time job.

As a side note, cultivating a relationship with and marrying my wife was the best happiness and financial decision I could have made because we have similar mindsets about retiring and love each other's company.  Granted, our reasons for wanting to retire are different, but our end goal is the same.

*Disclaimer, I didn't like the school part of college, so I got out as fast as I could.

slb59

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #9 on: September 15, 2018, 10:34:11 AM »
My dad worked as an electrical engineer, middle ranking in his department about twenty years ago when he started his master's degree and then quit because a) he was busy b) he didn't see it doing anything for his career beyond pleasing the manager who pressured him into it. Not long after he quit the degree, he ended up taking over management of the department from the manager who pressured him to do the degree, then gradually moved into C-suite as the company whittled down and off-shored its engineering department. He's done a lot of work as a go-between with customers, the production line, and engineers in a variety of positions where his engineering background helped but wasn't his central function. Nothing he's done since quitting his master's in electrical engineering would have made it of any use to him. And, in fact, he probably would have felt a bit stuck if he'd gotten that education right as the company was shrinking the engineering department.

THAT SAID, he has said more times than I can count that his biggest regret was starting that degree instead of an MBA. An MBA degree would have been much more helpful to him, his company, and his job security. It also sounds like - given your interests - it would be more applicable to your future endeavors, too. It might be worth seeing if your company would pay for an MBA or other less engineering-specific degree.

PaulMaxime

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #10 on: September 15, 2018, 11:47:16 AM »
From a pure money standpoint I say it's not worth it. There are people at my company and previous companies who had masters and PhDs and it didn't really make them better engineers or more money.

I have a BS only and that didn't stop me from working at the NSA, or Google or joining a successful startup.

You are going to be learning for your entire life anyway. Taking some graduate classes can be valuable for your own development (I've taken a few over the years that have directly helped me with skills I used in my job) but the paper doesn't really mean that much at least not in my experience.

It's really more about what you can do and what you bring to the table.

TheMightyAtom

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #11 on: September 15, 2018, 11:02:32 PM »
Would your company pay for an MBA? Would that interest you?

My company would definitely pay for an MBA. Whether that would be interesting to me is something I don't know yet. I'm not really interested in management, so.....I don't know how helpful it would be.

From a pure money standpoint I say it's not worth it. There are people at my company and previous companies who had masters and PhDs and it didn't really make them better engineers or more money.

I have a BS only and that didn't stop me from working at the NSA, or Google or joining a successful startup.

You are going to be learning for your entire life anyway. Taking some graduate classes can be valuable for your own development (I've taken a few over the years that have directly helped me with skills I used in my job) but the paper doesn't really mean that much at least not in my experience.

It's really more about what you can do and what you bring to the table.

I kinda figured this might be the case. Thanks for sharing your experience.

My dad worked as an electrical engineer, middle ranking in his department about twenty years ago when he started his master's degree and then quit because a) he was busy b) he didn't see it doing anything for his career beyond pleasing the manager who pressured him into it. Not long after he quit the degree, he ended up taking over management of the department from the manager who pressured him to do the degree, then gradually moved into C-suite as the company whittled down and off-shored its engineering department. He's done a lot of work as a go-between with customers, the production line, and engineers in a variety of positions where his engineering background helped but wasn't his central function. Nothing he's done since quitting his master's in electrical engineering would have made it of any use to him. And, in fact, he probably would have felt a bit stuck if he'd gotten that education right as the company was shrinking the engineering department.

THAT SAID, he has said more times than I can count that his biggest regret was starting that degree instead of an MBA. An MBA degree would have been much more helpful to him, his company, and his job security. It also sounds like - given your interests - it would be more applicable to your future endeavors, too. It might be worth seeing if your company would pay for an MBA or other less engineering-specific degree.

Hmm. Interesting. You're one of several folks who have recommended that I pursue an MBA. I've been shy of doing anything which might cause me to end up in management, but maybe I'll take a second look.

I'm firmly in the not worth it crowd*... unless you wanted to get an MBA.  Even then, if your ambition isn't to climb high on the corporate ladder, then I'd do something else.  If your target salary is being achieved by others without master's at your (or other) employers, I wouldn't choose to spend my time that way.

The SAME time spend doing anything that teaches you a trade, hobby, or something else would likely benefit you more.  How's your carpentry skills?  Can you do more than minor work to your vehicle?  For me, these skills have come in 100 times more useful than the masters that my former employer wanted to see me get would have.

If you're an engineer who thinks too much and over complicates stuff, learning the skills above from somebody who isn't an engineer could be doubly helpful.  The amount of times I've had my father show me an obvious solution I was missing due to overthinking is staggering.  I still don't think like him, but when we work together we're a powerful force.  I hope many years from now, when he's not around, I can still hear what he would say to me.

If you already have the ability to do most of these things, or are confident your life path won't require them, do the math on what a flexible hour part time job would do for your life.  If you're bored and need to do SOMETHING, then the best value calculation is not Masters or extra sleep, it's 3 years getting a masters vs 3 years of part time job.

As a side note, cultivating a relationship with and marrying my wife was the best happiness and financial decision I could have made because we have similar mindsets about retiring and love each other's company.  Granted, our reasons for wanting to retire are different, but our end goal is the same.

*Disclaimer, I didn't like the school part of college, so I got out as fast as I could.

Makes sense. I've been leaning in this direction. Your dad sounds like a great person. :)


Thanks to everyone who has commented thus far. You're helping me sort out my thoughts on this issue, so kudos.




ditheca

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #12 on: September 16, 2018, 02:15:27 AM »
Disclaimer: I'm in IT, not engineering.

I'm really enjoying my classes in the evening, working on an MBA.  The management theory classes are actually interesting, and having something useful to do at night seems to agree with me.

My current plan is to FIRE in under 10 years from my current employer, so the degree won't impact my salary at all.  It's just something I wanted to do.

It might give me more options after FIRE if I decide to volunteer for charitable causes.

AccidentalMiser

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #13 on: September 16, 2018, 07:10:57 AM »
Do you work in nuclear, given your user name?  Things in nuclear are a little different than the rest of the world.

One of my sons just finished his EE Master.  The advantage for him was that he was able to get into a field that would have been closed to him with just an undergrad (he designs radiation-resistant circuits for satellites) and did an internship with SpaceX.  He went to our local university of TN so the cost wasn't exorbitant and he was able to work for the school while he finished.  He has about $15k of student loans but most of that was due to drinking craft beer and living with some friends during the past two years.

For him, it was totally worth it.  For my other EE son, who works in the transmission group of a large utility, he'd be better off to get an MBA.

COEE

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #14 on: September 16, 2018, 08:13:59 AM »
...The advantage for him was that he was able to get into a field that would have been closed to him with just an undergrad (he designs radiation-resistant circuits for satellites) ...

@TheMightyAtom here is discussion we had recently where I asked similar questions and I got some good advice:  https://forum.mrmoneymustache.com/ask-a-mustachian/m-eng-vs-m-s-vs-travel-more/msg2051484/#msg2051484

I always find this discussion fascinating.  I'm at a point where I am trying to figure out what I want to do with the next 10-30 years.  It's incredibly difficult to go into some industries without a MSEE these days - as AccidentalMiser points out.  I've been fortunate to have a couple of companies take a bet on a guy with only a BSEE from a second tier school.  I've worked in both the aerospace (also doing rad-hard board design) and the integrated circuit industries.  Both industries are becoming much more difficult to get into without at least a MSEE - although shining stars with a BS will be given a shot occasionally.

Here's what I think - MS opens doors that would be shut otherwise.  It's the cost of entry into some disciplines.  I don't think it generally pays any better than a BS in the short-term, but can pay dividends in the long-term - particularly if you're good at what you do.  Do what you want to do because you want to do it - not because someone on a forum says this is better or that is better.  If you've never thought of an MBA before, then it's probably not for you - at least not at this point in time.

It's okay to get an MBA later if it's what interests you at a future date.  I've actually started to think about both a MBA and MSEE.  I'm starting to struggle with the order of events.

TheMightyAtom

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #15 on: September 16, 2018, 08:50:25 AM »
Disclaimer: I'm in IT, not engineering.

I'm really enjoying my classes in the evening, working on an MBA.  The management theory classes are actually interesting, and having something useful to do at night seems to agree with me.

My current plan is to FIRE in under 10 years from my current employer, so the degree won't impact my salary at all.  It's just something I wanted to do.

It might give me more options after FIRE if I decide to volunteer for charitable causes.

Options after FIRE is definitely something to consider.

Do you work in nuclear, given your user name?  Things in nuclear are a little different than the rest of the world.

One of my sons just finished his EE Master.  The advantage for him was that he was able to get into a field that would have been closed to him with just an undergrad (he designs radiation-resistant circuits for satellites) and did an internship with SpaceX.  He went to our local university of TN so the cost wasn't exorbitant and he was able to work for the school while he finished.  He has about $15k of student loans but most of that was due to drinking craft beer and living with some friends during the past two years.

For him, it was totally worth it.  For my other EE son, who works in the transmission group of a large utility, he'd be better off to get an MBA.

I did an internship for a nuclear plant in college and decided the field wasn't really for me. From my (admittedly limited) exposure to that industry, most of the EEs who work in the nuclear industry are more involved in maintenance of 40+ year old technology than they are involved in design of new stuff. I wanna work on the newer stuff.

...The advantage for him was that he was able to get into a field that would have been closed to him with just an undergrad (he designs radiation-resistant circuits for satellites) ...

@TheMightyAtom here is discussion we had recently where I asked similar questions and I got some good advice:  https://forum.mrmoneymustache.com/ask-a-mustachian/m-eng-vs-m-s-vs-travel-more/msg2051484/#msg2051484

I always find this discussion fascinating.  I'm at a point where I am trying to figure out what I want to do with the next 10-30 years.  It's incredibly difficult to go into some industries without a MSEE these days - as AccidentalMiser points out.  I've been fortunate to have a couple of companies take a bet on a guy with only a BSEE from a second tier school.  I've worked in both the aerospace (also doing rad-hard board design) and the integrated circuit industries.  Both industries are becoming much more difficult to get into without at least a MSEE - although shining stars with a BS will be given a shot occasionally.

Here's what I think - MS opens doors that would be shut otherwise.  It's the cost of entry into some disciplines.  I don't think it generally pays any better than a BS in the short-term, but can pay dividends in the long-term - particularly if you're good at what you do.  Do what you want to do because you want to do it - not because someone on a forum says this is better or that is better.  If you've never thought of an MBA before, then it's probably not for you - at least not at this point in time.

It's okay to get an MBA later if it's what interests you at a future date.  I've actually started to think about both a MBA and MSEE.  I'm starting to struggle with the order of events.

Thanks for the link. That's an interesting discussion for sure. I guess the only thing holding me back is that it doesn't seem like I really need a master's for the field I'm in. So I'm still trying to decide whether the tradeoff (3+ years of time investment in the degree, vs 3+ years of investment in other skills/sources of income) is really worth it.

SKL-HOU

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #16 on: September 16, 2018, 07:58:24 PM »
I am a mechanical engineer (with an MBA and PE license). I would recommend an MBA as well. Even if you dont want to be in management, it would help you. I would recommend getting your PE before anything else.

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #17 on: September 17, 2018, 12:02:02 PM »
I did not read all the responses.

I am a civil engineer in the public sector.  My employer paid for most of mine, but it did not come with any raise or other incentive where I work.  If I left my current employer it might help a little bit.


I got my Masters in Engineering Project Management.  It has helped me with some day to day stuff.
You said your employer would cover an MBA.

I think it is a totally personal choice and one that could impact your earnings, but unlikely unless you are wanting upper management. 

I would not do it if you are expecting an improvement career wise, but if you want it for your own satisfaction yes.

The MBA may be helpful in retirement if you ever decide to run your own business or something.

brute

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #18 on: September 17, 2018, 12:31:00 PM »
Grad school is awesome. Having an MS gets you into a lot more interviews than just a BS. If you want to work on cool stuff, get a Masters, but I wouldn't suggest a PhD.

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #19 on: September 17, 2018, 10:21:17 PM »
I agree that getting a masters is probably worth the investment but a PhD is not. In the large Engineering/aerospace company I just left I noticed that the large majority of people getting promoted to middle and high management had masters in engineering. Most of the technical track people did as well, so it seemed like a good move to make. I appreciate the additional maturing and learning my mind got through the process. I feel like I am a better thinker in life overall because of it.

I didn’t get a direct promotion or pay raise or anything after graduating but it did make me eligible for promotion earlier than I would have otherwise. It also counts for something when you are looking for a new job, as it usually is equivalent to an extra two or three years experience for minimum qualifications.

My husband got such a big pay bump after graduating from his masters that his payback period was under two years, though he went to a fancy private “West Coast Ivy”.

I’ve spent five years in management and never felt like an MBA would have been that helpful, though I always managed engineers. It could very well be different in other companies and industries. In summary: a big fat It Depends. :)

genesismachine

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #20 on: September 18, 2018, 04:44:27 PM »
I work in Power, and my MSEE was definitely not financially worth it. Literally nothing happened after I got it, no change in salary, no change in title, or anything.

If you want the education, there's Indian universities that post courses on Youtube (yes, for real). The courses are very very technical and in depth videos of real lectures. Many of the courses are not even offered at the university I went to. So buy a couple textbooks and study up. The knowledge from my MSEE has helped me on the job.

Your MSEE is for learning stuff you won't learn on the job. For example, having a 'feel' for transformers (learn on the job) vs actually being able to explain precisely what is going on with all the fields and be able to calculate at least in the ballpark the numbers involved (MSEE knowledge). The best is always going to be a combo of both. If you're learning stuff in MSEE classes that you would just learn on the job anyways, you're doing it wrong.

But if you factor in the opportunity cost of the time I spent learning (whether you get an MSEE or do the self-learning above) vs working more hours or having a second job, it is definitely not going to pay off over such a short career (if ever).

BigHaus89

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #21 on: September 19, 2018, 12:44:15 PM »
I think a masters is a waste of time in EE. You're better off putting your energy toward becoming a better engineer(through webinars, conferences and such) and focusing your extra time on something else. You could take up art, music, a side hustle, gardening, etc.

Taking the PE exam, however, can be very beneficial depending on your field.

mschaus

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #22 on: September 21, 2018, 03:12:13 PM »
As an ME, I have a masters and I'll say it was a great choice for me, because it allowed me to get the kinds of jobs that appreciated a masters degree. That is, more on the side of R&D than what I would call standard application/sales engineering jobs. To me the financial ROI was secondary because the degree impacted what I could do with my career, that thing people spend all day working at for many years. Plus I really enjoyed the immersive learning/research environment of full-time grad school (I know that bit is different than your situation).

ncornilsen

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #23 on: September 21, 2018, 03:26:14 PM »
I'm a Mechanical Engineer. At my employer, Master Degree'd mechanical engineers get their resume's round-filed. Too many of them show up and experience paralysis by analysis, and thing they're too good to do data collection.

People with a B.S. in engineering and an MBA, however, get hired to mid-management and languish there or move up on their merits.

Getting your PE, on the other hand, is worthwhile.

bacchi

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Re: Advice from Engineers --- Master's Degree Worth It?
« Reply #24 on: September 21, 2018, 03:48:57 PM »
BS EE
MS Computer E

Financially? Eh. I left with no loans and it would've been better going straight to work.

Intellectually? Definitely. Fun classes and great professors working on challenging projects -- what could be bad about that?

Socially? Oh yeah. You're still in college. It's like being FIRE without all the work.